Sunday, July 31, 2011

Take Pleasure in Each Step of Writing

The title of this post will have everybody shaking his or her head. “Rewriting is not pleasurable for me,” thinks one person. “I don’t like to write outlines,” says another. Yet a third will mutter, “I’d do anything not to have to delete all my adverbs and find stronger verbs.”

Mary Jane’s post two weeks ago about never again seeing a butterfly made me think of a powerful book that changed my life. Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender is wonderful. I read this book in the early ‘90’s and its lessons have stuck with me.

Bender is an artist among other things. Her lifestyle is unconventional. She left her small children and her husband to live for a year with an Amish family in the countryside of Pennsylvania to find her “inner self.” She was drawn to the Amish because of the colors used in and the beauty of quilts they sew and wanted to be inspired. She learned much more than how to create beautiful quilts and so can we.

What Bender learned was a philosophy that all writers should adopt. Instead of groaning about doing laundry, Amish women practice compartmentalization and satisfaction. They break down each task into its natural dimensions: wash the clothes, hang them outside to dry, heat flat irons on the wood burning stove, and iron.

The Amish philosophy is not to think of washing the clothes as a task that will make them perspire because the outdoor temperature is one hundred degrees and they will be using hot water and even hotter flatirons. They think how fresh the clothes smell because they used such hot water and how quickly the hot sun dried them on the clothesline. They won’t think about having to replace a cooled flat iron (no electricity is allowed in Amish homes) for a hotter one, but will derive happiness from a pressed sleeve that has a sharp crease in it as they move on to iron the collar.

The Amish farmer doesn’t think how difficult it is to mow hay because he knows that mowing is part, likeable or not, of the larger goal of providing feed for his cattle. He takes satisfaction in seeing his barn stacked with hay bales. They know one or more parts of a job may be onerous but they find satisfaction in conquering each step to achieve the desired result.

Does this strike any bells in your scribe mind? We all know that there is at least one distasteful or difficult section of writing for each of us. For one writer it is the outlining, for another how to make the dialog clearer, and for a third how to tie in the subplot. Instead of railing against the dreaded portion of it, take the Amish approach: plain and simple enjoyment of each part makes for a satisfying whole. Writing dictates that you have to do A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H on your way to sending your novel to a publisher. You cannot skip D because it takes too much effort or is difficult. If you cannot skip it, why not learn to embrace it? Learn to acknowledge how difficult it is for you to do the hard part, but also acknowledge how pleased you will be in the end because you accepted all phases of your writing project.

Be Amish: Plain and Simple.

[Amish quilts are hand sewn traditionally using only two colored dark fabrics. The hand quilting is exquisite. Each quilt has at least one flaw in it intentionally because the Amish believe that only God is perfect.]

Friday, July 29, 2011

Writing with Houseguests: An Oxymoron?

It has come to my attention that when one lives in someplace as beautiful as North Idaho, one tends to attract houseguests in the summertime. We didn't attract as many guests in our old home, but since moving to North Idaho, we have become amazingly popular.

We love our houseguests. We love sharing our home and catching up and renewing friendships and sharing the glory of our mountains, lakes, and forests. But in between outings and meals and gab sessions, how do you get any writing done? Do you just forget about writing and pick it up after the guests go home? What if there are deadlines to meet? What if the creative juices are flowing? What if going too long without writing makes you cranky and difficult? (Not that I know anyone who's like that, of course...)

Some of you write amidst a large family all the time, and houseguests slip easily into the mix. "What's the big deal?" you say to me, mystified.

But some of you might be more like me. While I have an ideal set-up for an introverted writer--a small household, the proverbial "room of one's own," and loads of quiet--having houseguests really throws me for a loop, creatively speaking. Even when we're not actively doing something together, even when they graciously give me time and space to get some writing done, I have trouble concentrating. I'm still aware of their presence every moment. It's like I can hear them breathing, out there in the living room. I imagine that they're checking their watches and wondering when I'll be free and what's for lunch. Deadlines loom, but creative powers desert me because somebody needs a towel and somebody else needs help figuring out the TV remote and a young somebody is Sooooo Booooored.

Help me, scribes. Do any of you have tips on how to combine writing and hospitality?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Take a Hike! A brisk walk is a writer's best friend

As writers we're often told that the key to writing success is to apply the seat of our pants to the seat of our chair, and to stay there until we've finished whatever sentence, paragraph, chapter, or daily word count adds up to "success" for that day.

But when you get stuck, sometimes the best thing you can do is to get up from that chair and go take a hike. Writers from time immemorial have relied on brisk walks to clear their heads and get their writing back on track.

Ed Hirsch, writing in the American Poetry Journal, says, "Poetry is a vocation. It is not a career but a vocation. I have associated that calling with my life's work, with walking. I love the leisurely pace amplitude, the spaciousness of taking a walk, of heading anywhere, somewhere on foot. You cross a threshold, and you're on your way. . . . Poetry is written from the body and mind, and the rhythm and the pace of a walk gets you going and grounded. . . . Daydreaming is one of the key sources of poetry--a poem often starts as a daydream that finds its way into language--and walking seems to bring a different sort of alertness, an associative kind of thinking, a drifting state of mind."

Julia Cameron, author of many books on creativity, is such a great advocate of walking to stir the creative process that she devoted an entire chapter to it in her book The Vein of Gold. "When we talk about inspiration we are talking about drawing breath," she writes. "Walking makes our breath rhythmic and repetitive. As our breath steadies and soars, so does our thought." She goes on to cite many examples of great walkers, such as the English poets.

It's summertime in North Idaho. Permission granted to get up from your desk and take a walk, to think, to dream, to get the blood flowing through your brain, to spark ideas and gain new perspectives. To breathe in . . . literally "in-spire." Just be sure to get back to the desk while those ideas are still fresh in your mind!

Have you found walking, or any other form of physical exercise, to be beneficial for your writing?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Twenty-Three Skidoo! A Writer's Guide to Slang

Slang and trendy vocabulary can be tricky for a writer to use. In a contemporary novel, slang can shorten your story's shelf life unnecessarily--a recurring problem with slang-heavy YA novels that can start to sound stale moments after they land on the shelf.

On the other hand, slang is your friend if you use it judiciously to enhance your story's time period and setting. When a character says "groovy" or "right on!" your reader will be looking for the love beads and sandals, making it a perfect detail to depict the Summer of Love, but not so hot for the Summer of '42.

How do you pick up on the slang and sayings of a particular era? One way is through reference books designed for that purpose. My current project is a novel set in the Roaring Twenties. Since I'm not quite old enough to have lived through that era, I'm relying heavily on a handy volume called The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition through World War II, by Marc McCutcheon. These Writer's Guides, published by Writer's Digest Books, are available for many different eras: the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, Colonial America, Victorian England, and others. They're fun and informative to read even if you're not currently working on a story.

Another great source of period-correct language is old magazines and newspapers. Check your library, antique stores, rummage sales, or online sources like eBay for periodicals published in the era of your story. For even more accurate details, zero in on the magazines your particular character would be most likely to read.

For example, a chic middle-aged matron in November 1936 might have read Delineator, which carried a delightful article titled, "A New Silhouette Means Your Winter Wardrobe Must be Chosen with Wisdom" that talks about "a smart afternoon dress in gray velvet," not to mention "a blouse for the gayest evening frivolities." Who talks like that nowadays? But your character might!

In a different story, a teenager in 1955 may have read Seventeen or Mademoiselle. Even a quick glance at magazines of this era reveals information about styles, movie stars, music trends, and concerns of teenage girls, such as how to tell a "dreamboat" from a "wolf." The Seventeen magazine of 2011 shows that girls are still interested in boys--surprise, surprise--but their concerns are substantially different.

Finding and using appropriate slang can turn your story from sad sack to hunky dory in no time flat, so for crying out loud, get cracking and don't give me none of that jive!

Friday, July 22, 2011

In the Write Place: Idaho Writer Michael Marsden

I met Michael Marsden through the Coeur d’Alene Chapter of Idaho Writer’s League. In awe of the tall, dignified author whose first book, The House in Harrison, had recently been published, I listened with undisguised interest as he spoke of his writerly adventures; and shared a few of his less-than- memorable encounters with editors and publishers.

Shortly thereafter, I bought his book, and for the first time, read a book authored by someone I actually knew! What fun to read a ghost story complete with a priest, a dwarf, and a missing blue-diamond necklace; all intertwined in a mystery set in North Idaho.

Michael's inscription in my book,

"Mary Jane, read it alone at night and enjoy." - Michael

Michael Andrew Marsden was born in Washington D.C. in 1939. He grew up in a blue collar family living in the shadow of the nation’s capital but from childhood he dreamed of living in the West. With a degree in hand he made that dream a reality, and began a 30-year career with the USDA Forest Service when he took a position in the newly opened Forestry Science Laboratory in Moscow, Idaho.

Michael's career with the Forest Service took him to many interesting locations in the West. Having become infatuated with the colorful history of the area, Michael retired to north Idaho in 1993. He is married, has three children, and two grandchildren.

MJ: Was the move to North Idaho good for your writing career?

Michael: To retire and become a writer was the right decision at the right time. Coming to North Idaho was determined by other considerations. Here in Coeur d’Alene I have made some great connections with other writers and learned a great deal. Such opportunities were also available in Colorado and in some ways better than here in Idaho. I do not regret the decision to come to Coeur d'Alene.
In addition to The House In Harrison, Michael has published three more novels including: A Walk In The Rain, In The Closet, and Sam d'Bear. He also has three additional novels in process. His books can be purchased through his website and at local stores. Sam d'Bear is available as a Kindle e-book through Amazon.

MJ: How many story ideas do you have waiting for your attention; and how do you decide what to write next?

Michael: I have two more North Idaho Ghost stories. One is being revised and the other edited. Today my attention is on them but other stories are always in my dreams. I had planned on publishing ten books. I have four and soon will have six but that may be the end of my publishing career. I planned everything but allowed for change. My first plan was to write 10 novels in 10 years and then market the best of them. After a few tries at marketing my first novel I turned to self-publishing and that changed everything. I stopped reading Writer’s Digest. Now I was free to write the stories I wanted to write in the style I thought those tales should be told.

Michael's latest novel, Sam d’Bear was published by Gray Dog Press in Spokane, Washington. In addition to his novels, he has recently had poems, essays and fiction published in SpokeWrite Magazine.

Michael Marsden is not only a prolific writer, he actively markets himself and his books, following many of the branding techniques outlined recently on our blog by Nancy Owens Barnes. He recently returned from a book signing in Estes Park, Colorado because the novel Sam d’Bear is set in Estes Park. His next appearance will be at the North Idaho Fair & Rodeo where he and a few other North Idaho writers signed on to man a booth for the 5-day event. Be sure and stop by to say "howdy" to Michael and his fellow authors if you get the chance.
All I know about marketing is if the story takes place in Harrison, Idaho, market it there. - Michael Marsden
To learn more about Michael - what inspires him, who he credits for his success, his take on the advantages self-publishing, and his view on the importance of an editor - please take the time to read his recent interview with editor Sarah Cypher, which follows.

The journey to be a good writer does not end with the first published book. I must strive to make my next novel better than my last and to do that I know that I need an editor. - Michael Marsden
An interview with Michael Marsden
By Sarah Cypher

Author Michael Marsden is carving a niche for himself as an indie-published writer of ghost stories and novels set in the American West. He’s also demonstrated a fascinating approach to learning the craft of creative writing: sheer quantity. After writing twelve books in ten years, he came to me with the best of them and asked me to help him take his craft to the next level. Besides writing, he’s active in the state writing community. He has served in the Idaho Writers’ League as vice president for the state organization and president of the Coeur d’Alene Chapter. Today he has three published novels and four more in process.

1. Tell us about SAM D’BEAR, and about your writing. In this novel, Sam d’Bear, a big Newfoundland dog, comes into David Montgomery’s life by accident and makes a home for himself. This is not the story I started to write fifteen years ago. At a writer’s conference in Boise a literary agent told me that if I want to write the story. The dog took over; and by the end of the story I didn’t care if the arsonist was stopped–I just wanted the dog to come out all right. When Gray Dog Press started up in Spokane in 2009, I submitted the story to them and it was published this year. It was clearly a case of having a novel ready when an opportunity presented itself. I also have a series of North Idaho Ghost stories. Two have been self-published and two more are in revision. In a series of ghost stories the common thread is not the protagonist but the location. All four stories take place in small towns in North Idaho. The history of the towns always plays a role in the ghost stories.

2. You draw heavily on your own experiences in your work–from the landscape of the West to having a son in the service. Do you feel that your writing helps you reflect on these experiences and identities? Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” Instead of applying that to the main plot I apply it to individual relationships and scenes within the story. I never write about a place that I have not visited–it is not enough to read about a city, a river or a mountain. As for characters in the novel, I try to have someone in mind when I write. My wife, my sons and my daughter and now one of my dogs have all found their way into my novels. Experiences from my past greatly influence scenes in my novels most often these are well planned but sometimes I am surprised. After reading THE HOUSE IN HARRISON, my older brother told me about a weekend our family spent in an old house in Virginia. He and I explored the house and spied on the rest of the family from behind closet doors and under counters. I was four at the time and I didn’t remember doing this, but I could see the pattern in the story I had written.

3. What comes first: character, or plot, or something else? The plot always come first, but it need not be formulated in great detail. The first version of a story is like an artist sketch in pencil; only after it is completed can I add color and details. It is in the second or third revision that the characters begin to fit into the location and interact with the plot. The main character tells me how he wants the story to be told. SAM D’BEAR is the exception. The dog changed the focus of the story and what was to be a subplot became the main plot. At the time I was writing this novel, I had a Newfoundland dog named Keeper who would lie behind my chair or under my desk while I was writing. The agility trial in the novel reflects a trial she won in Missoula, and I felt I had to write the scene that way because Keeper was watching.

4. How did you come to writing and what has helped you the most along the way? My mother was a writer of children’s stories. She had fifty-five published. She noticed that I always made up stories to tell my children and encouraged me to write than down and someday publish them. After I retired I set up a ten year plan to write a complete novel each year and then market the best of them. During these years I studied many books on writing, attended classes and conferences. Besides novels I wrote some rhymes and short stories which I entered in contests. I have belonged to five different writing organizations since I started writing. I am now active in only two. The greatest help has come from other writers I have met along the way.

5. As an author who has both self-published and been published traditionally, what is the top advantage and the top hassle of each? The top advantage of self-publishing is control. I have a definite image of the story, and the book; seeing the two come together is a point of great joy and pride. The downside is the amount of work it takes, and unless you can manage to get a distributor to accept you book, your sales are limited. Gray Dog Press is a new local small press and I have a feeling of trust with them. It is much different from dealing with a large business in a different time zone. Marketing has more opportunities when you have a publisher. The author has a strong role in marketing in either case but I don’t like being a bookkeeper or storing boxes of books in my guest room.

6. You seem to stay involved in a community of writers–both in a critique group and at the front of the room, giving talks about writing and publishing. More than ever, reaching out to other writers and readers seems to be a required part of the writing life. Is it required? What is the best way to start, and use your time wisely? I much prefer to write and let someone else read what I say, but some people are verbal communicators. They want to hear what others have to say and to interact with the presenter. Since I have learned much from the presentations by other writers, I am obligated to try to share my experiences.

7. What advice would you give to someone else who is just learning the craft of writing novels? Relax. Write and write until you come to the end of your novel and then write a second one. Only when I can see the entire story can I judge its worth. In my ten-year plan, I wrote twelve novels. The next year I took the most promising of the twelve and rewrote it from the beginning. It is important to share what you have written with others, but the author is only one who knows what he started out to write. Once you feel comfortable that you have said something, find an editor.

8. What question do you wish I would have asked, and what would you say to it? That question would be, “What role do you think an editor plays in one becoming a writer?” Nikki Arana, the most successful writer that I know personally, gives great credit to her editor for helping her become a professorial writer. I am by trial and error making some gains in my writing ability, but finding a good editor, critic, and teacher is key to stepping from the novice to professional level. The journey to be a good writer does not end with the first published book. I must strive to make my next novel better than my last and to do that I know that I need an editor.

Check out Michael’s latest novel, SAM D’BEAR, from Gray Dog Press. Sam d’Bear, a big Newfoundland dog comes into David Montgomery’s life by accident and makes a home for himself. Sam seems to know when someone needs a friend and his arrival creates both opportunities and problems for David. As their story unfolds, they are confronted by fire, snowstorms and even a mountain lion. David is a local businessman and photographer who finds himself drawing the attention of two very different but extremely attractive women. Sharp Bateman, a lonely boy with a troubled past, becomes involved with two rebellious teenage girls who are setting fires around town. When David’s house is set on fire Sharp’s only friend is David, who does not believe what everyone else assumes.

Sarah Cypher, editor and principal since 2003, served as a university press editor for three years and as a freelance writer and editor for over ten. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing, Phi Beta Kappa, from Carnegie Mellon University and her writing has most recently appeared inCrab Orchard Review and The Oregonian. She is a community workshop facilitator and member of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild. Sarah can be reached at She offers:
  • Substantive and/or developmental editing and critiques.
  • Agent, publisher, or self-publishing research assistance.
  • Prepublication services for self-publishing writers.
  • Regular free advice on her blog,
  • A book! Check out The Editor’s Lexicon: Essential Writing Terms for Novelists (Glyd-Evans Press, 2010), or find the e-book on your Kindle, iPad, or nook. (Available on Amazon and as an e-book for sampling and purchase on Smashwords.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Idaho Writer's Heritage: Poets & Potatoes

Idaho writers;perhaps it is the isolation, but it is apparent that the literature of Idaho is as diverse as its topography. Ranging from cowboy poetry written by gray-haired ladies to scholarly papers written by professors, the writers of Idaho cover a wide territory. While the state may never be as famous for its writers as it is for its potatoes and its mountains, it has an engaging literary heritage and a vigorous literary present. - Joanne Davis

While researching Idaho information for a screenplay, I discovered a wealth of Internet information concerning writers from Idaho. I’m positive you’ll be as amazed as I was by the diverse and talented group of people who have ties to our little western state, so often portrayed as a cultural wasteland.

Most Idahoans are aware that Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), author of classics such as The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises; moved to Idaho later in life, seeking the peace and inspiration of nature. While in Idaho he worked on For Whom the Bell Tolls and was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature.

But few realize that one of Idaho’s most respected writers, Vardis Fisher (1894-1968), authored many novels, including Children of God, Tale of Valor, and Mountain Man, later made into the Hollywood film "Jeremiah Johnson". (Who doesn’t remember Robert Redford’s portrayal
of Jeremiah Johnson?)

Fewer still know that Ezra Pound (1885-1972), a famed writer often referred to as modern poetry’s most important writer, was born in Hailey, Idaho. Frequently controversial, Pound spent most of his life in Europe where he completed many works including The Cantos, an 800-page novel series that took him 50 years to complete.

Or that Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) wrote the first draft of Tarzan of the Apes while working at a stationery store in Pocatello. His first Tarzan book was published in 1912.

And they would be shocked to learn that Idaho’s first famous filmmaker was a woman -- Nell Shipman -- a silent-era actor, writer and director; who produced several films in the 1920s at her Priest Lake studio, Lionhead Lodge.

Yet, each of these facts is true. It seems the serenity and inspiration of living in Idaho has produced a bumper crop of writers since the day it became a state in 1890...and even earlier.

Literature from Idaho, the real version of the Western setting, sometimes involves cowboys, miners, saloons, and horses, but the spectrum of characters, themes, and settings presented by Idaho's writers is as variegated as the land. - Joanne Davis

While researching I discovered a reflective, well-documented, and comprehensive article about Idaho writers written by Joanne Davis, a former English teacher at Emmett High School. After reading her eloquent article, I hope you’ll appreciate the exceptional group you join when you call yourself an Idaho writer.

Beyond Potato Fields: Writers of a Tough Paradise

by Joanne Davis

More famous for potatoes than poets, the Rocky Mountain state of Idaho is an enigma to most people in the U.S. It is a land of surprising geological extremes. Its landscape ranges from sagebrush desert in the south to snow-capped peaks in the 80 mountain ranges and rolling wheat fields of the Palouse. Idaho contains the largest wilderness area in the contiguous 48 states and more than 2000 lakes and 93,000 miles of streams and rivers, including 3250 miles of whitewater. It is, also, ironically, one of the most arid states. It contains such extreme features as the Craters of the Moon lava beds, the Bruneau sand dunes, and Hell's Canyon, the deepest gorge in the U.S., as well as farm and ranch land. More than 300 miles wide at the southern base, Idaho tapers to a panhandle barely 50 miles wide at its Canadian border 479 miles away. Within these 84,437 square miles, fewer than 1.3 million people reside.

The literature of Idaho, obviously, has been shaped by its landscape. The Nez Perce, Shoshone, Kutenai, Coeur d'Alene, Kalispell, Lapwai, and Bannock peoples had oral literatures that were not written until years after Lewis and Clark recorded their observations of the area in 1805-1806, if at all. In 1839 missionary Henry Harmon Spalding set up the first printing press in the Northwest territory to publish a Bible in the Lapwai language for which he devised the written alphabet. In the next 50 years, most of the writing was by women in the covered-wagon trains keeping journals of their daily lives on the Oregon Trail, or by would-be Longfellows publishing their homespun verse and sentimental narratives in the mining towns' newspapers.

Idaho's literary history, then, is largely a 20th century history with several exceptions. Two writers were born here in the 1880's whose work later became significant: poet Ezra Pound was born in Hailey in 1885, but his parents left the state when he was just 18 months, and Mourning Dove was born near Bonners Ferry in approximately 1888, but her mother took her to Washington state almost immediately. Between 1884 and 1895 popular writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote (immortalized in Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner) resided near Boise while her husband planned a dam. She was the first author of national significance to live and write in Idaho.

The writings of Idahoans of the past hundred years are varied. If they have anything in common, it is a strong sense of place, a place aptly labeled "Tough Paradise" by the Idaho Humanities Council. In such a place, conflict is more likely to be with nature than with civilization. A strong sense of independence comes naturally. Heroism derives from meeting the challenges of survival as an individual. Protagonists are, above all, modest, honest in recognizing their vulnerability. Outside of pulp fiction and formulaic films, such people are not bound by stereotypes. Literature from Idaho, the real version of the Western setting, sometimes involves cowboys, miners, saloons, and horses, but the spectrum of characters, themes, and settings presented by Idaho's writers is as variegated as the land.

Without a doubt the two most prominent writers' names associated with Idaho are Ernest Hemmingway and Vardis Fisher. Hemingway came to Idaho to live in his final years, returning to the Ketchum area where he had spent productive time writing and where he loved to hunt and fish. Even the beauty of the land and the support of friends were not enough to alleviate his depression, though, and here he died. Vardis Fisher, a native, turned from his academic career in the East to return to Idaho where he became one of the country's most-respected chroniclers of the West and its people. After a long and productive career, he retired in Hagerman to a home overlooking the Snake River.

Another Idaho native well-known among students of literary fiction, Marilynne Robinson, grew up in Sandpoint, a town on Lake Pend Oreille, which resembles the fictitious Fingerbone in Housekeeping. Her lyrical writing could be seen as the forbear of the poetry in the writing of Kim Barnes in her Pulitzer-nominated autobiography, In the Wilderness. Barnes and her colleague, Mary Clearman Blew, are now significant figures among women writing creative nonfiction. Their success has surpassed their literary predecessors, Annie Greenwood Pike and Grace Jordan.

Two poets who chose to make Idaho their home could also be considered significant figures in the world of literature. Charles David Wright continued to develop as a poet while teaching in Boise. His works were beginning to be included in literary anthologies before his untimely death. A younger poet, Robert Wrigley, who chose Idaho because of the rugged beauty of the Clearwater River region, has won significant prizes for In the Bank of Beautiful Sins and Reign of Snakes, collections which combine philosophical quests with a sensual appreciation of nature.

For many writers, the encounter with nature is the focus. Ted Trueblood, for example, earned a national reputation among conservationists and sportsmen for his articles in outdoors periodicals. Patrick McManus, an Idaho native, has a loyal following among readers who appreciate a humorous approach to a man's encounters with nature. The dynamic William Studebaker, a poet, finds enlightenment in the high mountain desert and cascading waters near his home on the Salmon River.

While not famous for its racial diversity, Idaho has authors who write from the perspectives of ethnic minorities. Two of the best are Alex Kuo, a poet who lives near Moscow while he teaches at Washington State University and Janet Campbell Hale who has returned to her home on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation.

Idaho has had its share of writers to enthrall generations of children and adolescents. Carol Ryrie Brink wrote a number of children's books, among them Newberry winner Caddie Woodlawn. Glenn Balch wrote stories based on his own experiences in the outdoors. His books have great appeal, especially for horse-loving young people. Several generations of kids have wept over Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. Ruth Gipson Plowhead's Lucretia Ann books, recently reissued by Caxton, inspired girls to be courageous and are fondly remembered today by middle-aged women. Contemporary author, Chris Crutcher , uses some of his experiences growing up in a small Idaho lumber town in his young-adult novels, and, lastly, Mink Creek native, Lael Littke, is now writing books for middle school children.

Idaho has also been home to various types of series and genre writers. Ridley Pearson, suspense writer, lived in Idaho for several years, as did Dean Wesley Smith, widely known in sci-fi circles. An earlier science fiction writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, lived in Idaho at several different times in his youth. In fact, he wrote the first Tarzan book in this state. James Stevens of Paul Bunyan notoriety lived here, as did Helen Markley Miller and Carl Henry Rathjen, authors of Western series.

Many Idahoans have been surprised by the success of women writing in the romance genre. Charlotte Louise Dolan, Robin Lee Hatcher, Marylyle Rogers, and Donna Fletcher Crow could all be placed in this general category of successful romance writers, though each further classifies her work as gothic, historical, or Christian.

Idaho has had several authors with success in writing for movies. Nell Shipman in the pioneering days of film wrote scripts, directed, and acted in movies set in northern Idaho. Talbot Jennings of Nampa ended up in Hollywood where he was the screenwriter for such classics as Mutiny on the Bounty, Northwest Passage, and The Sons of Katie Elder. Of course, there were unintended connections to the movies, too. Vardis Fisher could not have predicted that his novel, Mountain Man, would become the movie, Jeremiah Johnson. Neither would Richard McKenna have predicted that his best-selling novel, The Sand Pebbles, would become a blockbuster movie.

In contrast with its predominantly conservative social climate, Idaho has produced a number of writers who could loosely be called postmodernists, but whose works project such individuality that they defy classification. Among these is Clay Morgan, of Boise, McCall, and now, Houston, whose work ranges from the novel Santiago and The Drinking Party to NASA documents. Others have been experimental enough to gather cult-like followings. John Rember (Cheerleaders from Gomorrah: Tales from the Lycra Archepelago), Tom Spanbauer (The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon ), and Gino Sky (Appaloosa Rising: The Legend of the Cowboy Buddha) all treat the Idaho places they have lived as mythological lands in which to set their surreal stories. Lance Olsen, in contrast, deliberately avoids using real places, believing fictitious settings should be created in the imagination. For these four, writing on the edge is as natural and as necessary as breathing.

One more category of writers must be mentioned: those connected with music. Idaho has had songwriter-musicians succeed in the entertainment world–one thinks of the contrasting figures of Paul Revere of pop in the 60's and Doug Martsch, current genius of Built to Spill. When it comes to universal respect, though, two stand out. Norm Weinstein, poet and music critic, has certainly captured the world of jazz, and Rosalie Sorrels has become an icon of folk music.

Perhaps it is the drama of the terrain that shapes Idaho writers; perhaps it is the isolation, but it is apparent that the literature of Idaho is as diverse as its topography. Ranging from cowboy poetry written by gray-haired ladies to scholarly papers written by professors, the writers of Idaho cover a wide territory. While the state may never be as famous for its writers as it is for its potatoes and its mountains, it has an engaging literary heritage and a vigorous literary present.

The Davis article and bibliography can be found at:

Friday, July 15, 2011

From Paper Clips to Butterflies

After reading Nancy’s blog containing a video outlining the history of paperclips, I began to write a comment about making insects out of paperclips at our family camp-out. I changed my mind, when thinking about paperclips led me to remember a TV documentary about paperclips -- and a small book I purchased during an elementary school book sale during the mid-90s.

In 1998 a group of 8th-graders from Tennessee who were learning about the Holocaust and discussing tolerance, began a project to collect paperclips – one for every person who was exterminated during the Holocaust. Although off to a slow start, the simple project eventually gained worldwide attention. At last count, over 30 million paper clips had been received. In 2004, Paper Clips, the award-winning documentary film about the project, was released by Miramax Films.

The students chose paperclips to represent the lives of those exterminated after discovering that Norwegians wore paperclips on their lapels during World War II as a silent protest against Nazi occupation.

Today, thousands visit the Children’s Holocaust Memorial built as a result of the Paperclip Project. It consists of an authentic German transport car filled with 11 million paper clips (6 million for murdered Jews and 5 million for Gypsies, Catholics, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other groups). The monument was uncovered on the anniversary of the Kristallnacht, November 9, 2001 on the campus of Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tennessee. Learn more about this project at

The car is surrounded by a small garden in which eighteen butterflies sculpted of twisted copper are embedded in concrete. The idea for the butterflies came from a poem, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”, which appeared in a book of poems and drawings produced by children and young adults held in Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 -- the little book I was drawn to purchase many years ago.

The Butterfly
by Pavel Friedman 4.6.1942

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears
would sing against a white stone. . . .
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly 'way up high.
It went away I'm sure
because it wished to kiss the world good-bye.

For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live in here,
in the ghetto.

Pavel Friedman died in Auschwitz on Sept. 24, 1944, age 24.

Only 100 of the 15,000 children under the age of fifteen who passed through Terezin, survived. But in 1955 a suitcase full of their poems and drawings was found and restored. Since that time, the words of those innocent children and young adults have been read by millions of people.

I am a Jew
by Franta Bass

I am a Jew and will be a Jew forever.
Even if I should die from hunger,
never will I submit.
I will always fight for my people,
on my honor.
I will never be ashamed of them;
I give my word.

I am proud of my people,
how dignified they are.
Even though I am oppressed,
I will always come back to life.

Franta Bass died at Auschwitz on Oct. 28, 1944, at the age of 14.

Thank you Nancy, for getting me to think.

Elizabeth recently wrote, "Sometimes our most cherished stories and inspirations come from an early morning walk behind a sweet old church."

...or they may arise from a simple paperclip,
...or perhaps a yellow butterfly.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly, edited by Hana Volavkova; revised and expanded by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. New York: Schocken Books, Inc. 1993; can be purchased on Amazon.

We write to make suffering endurable, evil intelligible,
justice desirable, and love possible.

- Roger Rosenblatt, novelist and journalist

Events and Trivia: Author J. A. Jance and Paper Clips

There are some great author events coming up this weekend and over the next few weeks at Aunties Bookstore in Spokane.

Saturday afternoon, Author K. T. Kelly will be signing copies of her illustrated children’s books, Starfriends I & II and Starfriends III & IV. Also, The Pixie Chicks, a group of Idaho writers, will present their anthology An Eclectic Collage.

Later this month Therese Marszalek will share highlights from her book 40 Days: Inspiration and Encouragement to Get You Through Tough Times, David Matheson will share his book Red Thunder, and Donald Gardern Stacy will discuss his books, After Nightfall & Other Stories and Cliffside Drive.

Then, on August 4, New York Times bestselling author J A. Jance will talk about her life and times and  her  eagerly anticipated book, Betrayal of Trust: A J.P. Beaumont Novel. Jance is the popular author of three series of novels centering on retired Seattle Police Department officer J.P. Beaumont, Arizona County Sheriff Joanna Brady, and Ali Reynolds.

For more details on these and other writing-related events, check the Events page of this blog.

Meanwhile, here’s a fun topic to think about: Paper Clips

When I recently went through some old files and paperwork, I tossed some papers into the waste basket and shredded others while pulling off and setting aside the paper clips—those valuable tiny tools that come in so handy in writing and business; that attach our business cards to query letters, cover letters to book proposals and manuscripts; that my son bends into odd shapes, that my schoolmates used as ammunition with rubber bands, that I have used to open a locked door, or to clean dirt from a crack. For fun, here’s a very brief history of the paper clip:

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My Bird-Brained Solution: Books for Writers

After completing the ebook versions of my print books several months ago, I struggled to keep my focus on a single writing project. Instead, my thoughts zigzagged from project to project—a photo-essay book I want to do with my brother, ideas for two memoirs, an ebook I’ve started that requires a substantial amount of research, book marketing activities, and a real estate-related ebook for my husband’s business. As a result, I felt I had accomplished little.

This dilemma of disorganization eventually led me straight back to thoughts of Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, in which she wrote:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

With that inspirational reminder, I forced myself to lay all but one project aside, to close the irrelevant files on my computer desktop, and to decide that I would not go back to the others until I had the current project under control and complete. Even though I still itched to get back into the other projects, I persisted and made good progress.

Although other writing-related books may cover the same topic of setting priorities and working through projects, Lamott worded it in such a way that it stuck with me and draws me back again when the need arises. And reaching back for Lamott’s assistance got me to thinking: What other books have influenced me in the same way—meaning that the book contained a single passage, metaphor, anecdote or idea that has stayed with me and influenced my writing in a way that others did not?

Here are a few that come to mind:

Writing for Story by Jon Franklin
I always think about two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Franklin’s book when I think about story structure. Franklin gave a clear, memorable formula for structuring dramatic nonfiction, which I apply to my own work.

Writing Creative Nonfiction by Theodore Cheney
Even though I had read about passive writing in other books, it was Cheney’s words that stuck with me and influenced my writing.

Revision by David Michael Kaplan
Kaplan made me realize the importance of revision. Now, revising my writing has become the most important, fulfilling, and enjoyable part of writing. Revision is where craft really comes into play.

Writing Content by Roger Nielsen
What has stayed with me from Nielsen’s book was that I could not only write what I know (as all writers are instructed), but through research and learning, I could also write what I would like to know. That realization opened an enjoyable range of possibilities.

We can all read and hear the same topic over and over again in books and at writing conferences, but it sometimes takes the right person to write or say it in a certain way that sparks a "lightbulb moment" and causes us to finally take notice. Or maybe our brain just happened to be more receptive at that moment. Whichever the case, the knowledge sticks with us and we usually remember the book we read it in, or the person who shared it with us.

Which books do you return to for inspiration?

Monday, July 11, 2011

The P-Word: A Marketing Essential for Authors

I recently watched a movie (Starting Out in the Evening) about a once-successful, aging, literary fiction author whose remaining goal in life is to make a comeback by finishing what he knows will be his final novel. At a literary event he encounters the editor from the publisher of his earlier books. The editor asks the author if he is still writing.

"Well yes, yes, of course. As a matter of fact I'm just putting the finishing touches on my new novel. And I'd really be happy to send it over to you as soon as it's finished."

The editor looks down then at the author and says, "Look, Leonard, I respect you too much to blow smoke. This business has turned into the film industry. It's all about the name. And to tell you the truth, most of the business we do now is celebrity confessions and self-help books.”

The dejected author replies, “I understand.”

What the editor told Leonard rings true today in a market that has been referred to as the "Hollywoodization" of publishing. With many agents and publishers, it is now often less about the writing and more about the name…or to be more precise…about the worrisome p-word: PLATFORM, or AUTHOR PLATFORM.

What is an author’s platform? It is what the author “brings to the table” to sell books; the author's built-in book-selling potential; the built-in audience. It’s about the author's influence, passion, and the author's goal as a writer. It's about how well the author is situated to sell books.

Celebrities and other famous people have thousands and millions of fans who will buy their books. TV anchors and similar talking heads have a huge television audience who will buy their books. Others who possess a ready-made market include high-profile speakers who can draw large listening audiences, people who have been part of a significant newsworthy event, and owners of successful businesses who have a large client base. These high-profile people represent less financial risk to publishers because publishers know their platform alone will sell many books.

But if you are not a famous person or someone with a ready-made reading audience, you can create your own platform if you’re willing to do the work. You may never reach the audience potential of a celebrity, but you might be able to build a platform large enough to interest an agent or publisher, or create a nice audience for your already-published books.

Today, the easiest and quickest way to build your platform is by using the internet to establish a strong online presence. Here are some steps you can take to begin creating your author platform:

Create a great-looking website to showcase your work and personality. Include a detailed bio, cover images and details about your book, a schedule of your planned book events, and reviews/endorsements of your book. Occasionally update the site so that it doesn’t become stagnant. Include links to your social media accounts on your Home page.

Blogging is a quick, dynamic way to grow your online presence by sharing your ideas and knowledge with others. Create your own blog and post on a regular basis, or become a blogger on a multi-author blog (such as this one). Comment on other blogs using the name of your book alongside your signature. You can also contact other blog authors and offer to be a guest on their blog.

Social Media
Join and participate in popular social media groups such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.. Always include links to your website and blog. Try to connect and participate regularly.

Email List
Grow your email list from your website or blog by offering a newsletter, giveaway, or inviting people to contact you via a contact form. You can use this list on occasion to announce new books, editions, or special sales. But use the list sparingly so your recipients don't feel spammed.

Audio and Video
Learn to make your own book trailer to post on You-Tube, your website, and/or blog. You can also make an audio of yourself reading an intriguing passage from your book. With a little research and basic software, you can create these products yourself.

Use your writing skills to write helpful online articles, such as tips on writing, book reviews, etc., on places like Associated Content and other online article venues.

All books are not for all people. Whether you are connecting with individuals, groups, or organizations, guide your marketing efforts toward the audiences and niche markets who are the most likely readership for your book.

Because some of these marketing methods can be time-consuming, pick and choose the ones that most appeal to you and do those first. Don't let the amount of work involved in building your platform intimidate you. Make a plan to do one small thing each day, or two or three things each week. As you grow your online presence, your author name and book title will appear more and more frequently in web topic searches, and those interested will eventually have information about you and your book at their fingertips.

In addition to your online presence, here are some ways to enhance your platform offline:

Public Speaking
Promote yourself and your writing expertise by speaking at conferences, schools, libraries, and other relevant venues in your area.

Check in your community to see if there are extension programs, community centers, or other places where you can use your writing experience to teach other writers.

Professional Organizations
Join professional groups where you can get known and can interact with others in your field.

Media Interviews
Try to setup interviews with radio, television and newspapers. If you are traveling on a book tour, try to schedule interviews with the local media well ahead of time. In smaller communities, the media are often happy to interview authors for local events.

Consider submitting articles in your topic area to newspapers and magazines in your area.

Building a platform is about marketing yourself and building a readership. Some say an author should begin building their platform up to three years prior to publication of their book. But even if your book is already published, continuing to build your platform will help get it into the hands of new readers.

According to Jane Friedman of Writer's Digest: "Audience development doesn't happen overnight (or even in six months or a year); it's a process that continues for as long as you want to have a readership. It shouldn't be delayed, postponed, or discounted for one minute."

In the end, however, getting maximum benefit out of the platform you build goes hand-in-hand with writing the very best book you can write.

With the exception of teaching, I've used all of the above marketing techniques, in varying degrees, to build a platform. Over the past year or so, however, I've focused exclusively on the online activities. Not only has online marketing helped boost book sales and my visibility as a writer, but I love that I can work on my platform while wearing my fuzzy slippers.

Friday, July 8, 2011

"Soar with your Strengths"

Marcus Buckingham, in the auspices of working for Gallop, devised an ingenious method of discerning how we process information. According to his research, information comes through a filtering system in our brains, and gets instantly stored and sorted for further use. Developed as a management tool, it became quite popular with the corporate world, as communication can often be difficult.

I well remember the day when I worked in a call center where we were taken off the 'phones, a holiday in and of itself, and sent into the training labs to hear about this program. Next, we were given a series of test questions and told that we would have our answers in two weeks time.

We were all fairly curious to see the results of the Gallop program, but nothing could have prepared us for the impact. It was not that we discussed it for the next week; it went in to the following months and then years. We were given a small plaque to put beside our computer terminals in our lowly cubicles. Anyone coming to talk to us, about any given matter, could glance at the list of strengths and then ideally, would formulate a plan to address the situation, based on how we like to receive information.

The categories were separated into four themes: Impacting, relating, thinking and striving. When the test results were handed out I was told that in the group of over four hundred people, only two had all five top strengths in the thinking department. Everyone in the room looked at me and I quipped that I must be a brain in a jar.

My list came out as follows: Intellection, Arranger, Connectedness, Learner, Context. Briefly, the first title is described as someone who likes to think things through, endlessly. The arranger is depicted as a juggler who can toss it all in the air and then find a quick way through the morass to a solution and a way forward. Connectedness has to do with always having the bigger picture, that being the universal oneness of being, in mind. Learner is rather self explanatory in that those with this particular strength have an endless fascination with that which they do not know. Context pertains to the history of any given situation. First of all, how did we get here.

Back at my desk with this new information about myself, I suddenly realized that I could not have had a better grouping for writing. At this point in my life, my novel had been rejected, I was feeling rather hopeless in regards to my great dream, and was literally punching a time clock and doggedly putting one foot in front of the other. Suddenly, I wondered if I had underestimated myself, taken rejection too personally and asked everyone around me if I should not have another crack at the old manuscript.

This kind of reaction rippled through the whole company. Relationships ended and many people moved on to other jobs. As Marcus Buckingham once said, “when a child brings home a report card with three A's, two B's and a D which grade becomes the center of our dialog?”

This program, can be useful as we look at characters we have created. It may be a method of sticking to a consistent theme which is evident in a person's life. Are they a driven individual, always, trying to affect change? Are they passive, always trying to understand what is about to hit them next? Do they need to win over others, or are they confident in themselves, no matter how odd they may appear to to others?

As companies learned to stop focusing continually on what an employee was doing wrong, and were trained to shift their thinking towards a more positive outlook, we can apply the same tool to writing. We are all flawed, and we make mistakes, but we do learn from them, and have great strengths at the same time. Nothing is more flat then a one dimensional character. We are complex creatures after all, full of quirks and foibles. Many great stories involve a character, under duress, finding strengths they did not know they possessed.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

At Least I Tried

Since the Ironman Competition first came to Coeur d' Alene, we have seen our town transformed into a training ground and then a race course for outstanding athletes. This year we saw 2,300 triathletes enter the cool waters of Lake Coeur d' Alene. It turned out to be a day for the record books. Craig Alexander of Australia did the course in 8 hours, 19 minutes and 48 seconds. Julie Dibens of Great Britain came in at 9 hours, 16 minutes and 40 seconds. People were still on the course when I went to sleep at ten p.m. My thoughts and prayers with them knowing they still had miles to go.

The morning after race day, we woke up to a power outage which put me on the hunt for a cup of coffee. Realizing that the Coeur d' Alene Resort has a back up generator, I set off to accomplish my mission. In the lobby, not only did I get my latte, I got to see and overhear conversations regarding the race.

“Don't be so hard on yourself,” one wife said. “You gave it your all.”

“Well at least I tried,” the man replied as he limped off in the direction of the dock.

During the past few years, as I beaver away at my memoir, much thought has been taken up with the theme of competition. Being that our family business had to do with professional sports, namely hockey, the topic of winning and losing was on our lips at all times. The city of my youth grew to be passionately attached to the Toronto Maple Leafs and they expected them to win the much coveted Stanley Cup. We did not fail. In the summer, we were in the “off” season, out of the city, up at the lake and life was much slower and a great deal more relaxing.

Against my will one summer, I was entered in a diving contest at a regatta hosted by our island dwelling neighbors. Swimming races and events for all ages were set up throughout the day. When I failed to win the swim, I was entered into the diving contest. My sister won her age group, hands down. While I insisted that I did not know one of the compulsory dives, all my protests were silenced. So, not knowing what else to do, I invented something. Jump up, land on board in a seated position and then sort of plop, head first into the lake. The crowd roared, not with the thrill of brilliant competition, but with laughter and my father was furious. Thoroughly dressed down and called a disgrace when we returned, I decided that I hated competition altogether. In my adult life, I have shied away from everything. Writing contests are no exception. While I consider this a personal failing which I plan to conquer someday, a game of 'go fish' with a young child is about all I can muster.

Today I looked up quotes pertaining to winning and losing and I found something that could well change my life.

“I can accept failure, but I can't accept not trying.” Michael Jordan.

I was at the finish line for the Ironman race when the winner came down the main street of our town with no one on his heels. I cheered, and threw my hands in the air. To the strangers on either side of me, I cried, “Can you imagine what it takes to win this race?”

When you walk in any book store and see the array of volumes, it is easy to think, how on earth can I hope to compete with all of this? Currently, I am rereading Les Miserables. Who am I compared to Victor Hugo? All these thoughts plague any writer and fear can be overpowering. Yet, I could never accept not trying to write novels, or not trying to be an author. I can accept not finding an agent, or getting turned down by publishers, but I could never accept the flow of words drying up altogether.

“That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do; not that the nature of the thing itself is changed, but that our power to do is increased. “Ralph Waldo Emmerson”